Research published this week provides important new insights into food bank use in the UK. The study by Oxford University is the largest yet to investigate the profile of people who are turning to food banks for help. Findings show the vulnerable status of high proportions of food bank users, with lone parents and people with disabilities over-represented among their number.

The study also asks important questions about the economic status and income sources of food bank users. The results highlight the financial drivers of food bank use. All households using food banks report incomes well below measures of low income, and 1 in 10 say they’d had no income at all.

Most people using food banks are in receipt of out-of-work benefits (69.3%), with Employment Support Allowance (ESA) the most common source of income, followed by Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). The majority of ESA claimants are in the work-related activity group. As the report highlights, claimants who are vulnerable to sanctions are more common among food bank users. These groups are also more likely to have experienced a benefits change following a work capability assessment or move to Universal Credit.

A Menu for Change has been speaking to people who have used food banks across our project areas of Fife, Dundee and East Ayrshire. Their experiences echo a lot of what this new report tells us. People with disabilities spoke about failing medical assessments, having to cope with a sudden drop in their income, and not getting the right information or support to manage the appeals process. Sandra, a woman in her 50s, described the challenges she faced in appealing an ESA decision which left her for a long period with no income whatsoever:

“I failed a medical for ESA, and while you’re waiting to see if they’re going to change that decision, you don’t get any money, unless you claim Jobseeker’s. But to claim Jobseeker’s you have to say that you’re fit for work. And clearly I’m not, I can’t breathe properly or anything, so I couldn’t sign on. And it’s taken twice as long as it usually takes because they lost the first lot of papers. It’s actually thirteen weeks this week I haven’t had any money at all, nothing”.

Had Sandra received the right advice and support, she could have avoided this long gap in income and not have had to turn to a food bank for help. Through A Menu for Change we will be working with local services to improve people’s access to cash in a crisis, making sure that those like Sandra are supported to navigate the system and are not left unnecessarily destitute in the process.

The Oxford University report also raises particular concerns about the operations of the benefits system, highlighting common challenges faced by food bank users. High numbers of those turning to food banks have been left with no income as they wait for the outcome of a new benefit application. 39% of food bank users in the study had recently made a new benefit claim and were waiting for a decision or payment. Almost 1-in-5 of those had been waiting for 7 weeks or more.

People we have spoken to in our research also describe having to wait long periods for new claims to be processed. After Jean’s husband died she was left with no money while she submitted a new benefits claim as a lone parent. At this time she was referred to the food bank to help her to feed her children.
We also met Robert, along with his wife and young son, at a food bank. He had been sent by the Job Centre while they dealt with his benefits application:

“basically the contract ended for the job, so I ended up out of work. It was the fourth of March, so it was, and I’ve tried to get onto Job Seeker’s Allowance for a whole month now and I’ve still not received one penny from them”

Neither Robert nor Jean had been offered a short-term benefits advance, or other emergency payments which they are entitled to in these sorts of situations. Again, getting the right advice would have meant having money in their pockets to be able to meet their families’ basic needs without having to turn to charity for help. Their experiences suggest services are sending people to food banks before making sure they have access to all of their cash entitlements.

A Menu for Change thinks people should not have to turn to food banks to feed themselves and their families. Research from Oxford University and our own conversations with people at food banks in Scotland show that they often do so when the safety net has let them down. Our social protection system should be working better for people. There are cash supports available for those awaiting benefit payments or experiencing sanctions. Rather than a food bank referral becoming the default, we need to make sure local services are working to maximise access to these crisis supports. At the same time we need to continue to pressure for policy changes which will strengthen the safety net and prevent people from falling into food insecurity.

Over the next three years we will be working to achieve these sorts of policy and practice changes. We want to achieve a shift away from emergency food aid as the solution and towards preventative and rights-based measures which increase the incomes of people facing crises.

Author: Mary Anne MacLeod, Research and Policy Officer